Viognier (pronounced “vee-own-yay”) is the white grape most often associated with the Northern Rhone district in France that is capable of making rich wines with a heady bouquet.
Wine-writer Jancis Robinson has referred to Viognier as “the hedonist’s wine” and we certainly agree. Though difficult to handle, in the right hands it is capable of making delicious wine. Its story is quite unique, and we think well worth reading about.
There is a good chance you don’t know a whole lot about Viognier as it doesn’t have the acreage planted that other major grape varieties do. Come to that, it might surprise a good number of you as to what the most planted white grape varietal to make into wine is. We were pretty sure it was Chardonnay. What, wrong you say? Oh, well then it must be Riesling. Guess again? Sauvignon Blanc? No? Then what? Arien. It is a Spanish grape that makes a table wine but is also used to make Brandy and Sherry. Viognier doesn’t even make it in to the top 10.
It’s a shame there isn’t more Viognier available. When made well it produces a wine of unctuous texture with a notable perfume. Apricots, peaches and other stone fruits are the main characteristics on both taste and aroma. Mineral notes come through on finer examples and sometimes they are complimented by notes of honeysuckle, lavender and a hint of thyme.
As previously mentioned, Viognier is a tricky grape to grow (likely part of the reason so little is planted). In the vineyard it can be quite susceptible to powdery mildew. The biggest challenge to growing the grape is to pick it at optimal ripeness. Viognier naturally wants to ferment to higher levels of alcohol (13%-15%) and only moderate levels of acidity.
Harvest it too early and its natural body and flavours won’t fully develop leaving you with a dull and sometimes harsh wine. Harvest too late and the alcohol level will spike resulting in a very full, alcoholic wine, deficient in acid and lacking definition. But when the vineyard grows it optimally the result is a medium to full body (comparable to a New World Chardonnay) with rich flavours of pronounced intensity.
This style may not be fully on trend with today’s consumer who seems to have shifted to leaner wines showing higher acidity.
Fair enough, if that is your lane and you are not terribly interested to venture out of it, Viognier is not likely to be for you. We’ve had a few Viogniers that were either intended to be in that style or just simply did not ripen enough that season. Either way, we thought the wine didn’t work. Viognier needs to be its natural self to be good. It’s a Sophia Loren, not an Audrey Hepburn.
Viognier is usually vinified as a varietal wine, not blended with other grapes. If it’s blended, its partners are often the other grapes of the Northern Rhone: Roussanne and Marsanne. But these blends are usually made in the Southern Rhone and are typically not as focused on the quality end of the spectrum.
Our recommendation is to stick with the varietal wines and avoid the blends. There is a great partner to Viognier and it is quite an unusual one: Syrah!
That’s right, the red grape of the Northern Rhone (and now grown many other places as well) is Viognier’s best partner in our book. While it is very unusual to blend a white and a red grape together, the Syrah/Viognier partnership is in fact not a blend at all but a co-fermentation.
“Blends” refer to mixing one finished wine with one (or more) different finished wines. “Co-fermentation” refers to putting different grape varieties into the same fermenter and having the grapes go through the fermentation process (converting their sugars to alcohol) together at the same time.
This results in a different wine than had you blended two finished wines together.
Interestingly, and counter-intuitively, there is an enzyme in the Viognier grape that actually draws more colour out of the Syrah skins resulting in a darker wine. This co-fermentation technique has been employed for years to make the wines of Côte Rôtie. Typically they would co-ferment 2%–5% Viognier with the Syrah. Guigal’s famous La Mouline co-ferments a whopping 11% Viognier with its Syrah giving the resulting wine a very floral and perfumed nose. This practice is being picked up outside of Côte Rôtie and now Australia’s Barossa Valley is producing some terrific Shiraz/Viognier.
Dave Powell lead that charge with his famous RunRig that he made for years when he was at Torbreck. Dan Standish produced The Relic as a Shiraz/Viognier that came close to rivalling RunRig (he in fact made his wines at Torbreck in his early vintages). d’Arenberg out of McLaren Vale makes a Shiraz/Viognier they call the Laughing Magpie which is not just delicious, but very fairly priced as well.
Though Viognier is planted in many parts of the world in very small quantities, there are not that many regions that produce a Viognier we can recommend. But those who handle it well can make some terrific wines that are well worth the effort to search out. The Northern Rhone has to be given first mention. The reference point for Viognier has to be the tiny appellation on the west bank of the Rhone River called Condrieu. Expensive and small production, what little that comes out of the region is pure gold. Look for producers like Guigal, Ganglof, Cuilleron, Vernay and Vaillard, or the ultra-famous Chateau Grillet, a vineyard that has its own separate appellation.
California can make some delicious Viognier, and sometimes its warmer climate can push the boundaries with this grape. But some great examples come from Alban, Fess Parker, Tablas Creek and Daou. And finally, we can’t overlook our own back yard: British Columbia. We don’t see much Viognier produced in the Okanagan Valley but at its southern end is Black Hills Winery who is able to take advantage of its unique and hot terroir and produce some terrific red and white wines. Their Viognier is a go-to at our home and is very fairly priced, given that level of quality.